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Textile Artist Sidnee Snell On Quilting, Engineering & The Art Of Hand Dyeing

OPB | Aug. 15, 2014 midnight | Updated: Aug. 15, 2014 7:15 a.m.

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What do quilting and engineering have in common?

A lot, according to Portland-based textile artist Sidnee Snell. She creates heavily stitched, complex appliqué quilts based on photographic images. “My quilts are really paintings using fabric and stitch,” she explains.

Courtesy of Sidnee Snell

Snell’s artwork has been exhibited in galleries, museums and art shows nationwide and around the world. She worked as an engineer before switching careers and says she enjoys incorporating her technical background into the creative process.

“The way that I make quilts now is that I interact with the computer and I like that part of it,” says Snell. “I like that the process that I use … encourages me even to use the engineering side of my brain to learn new computer things and at the same time use a very visual loosey-goosey right side kind of thing.”

Snell began sewing when she was a child. She made her first dress at age 11 and has always loved working with fabrics. However, her career path initially took her in a different direction. Snell studied electrical engineering with a computer science emphasis and worked at Hewlett Packard in Corvallis. She left the industry in 1994 and later attended a class with prominent art quilter Nancy Crow. That experience inspired Snell to begin making her own textile art.

Snell creates her quilts by experimenting with photographic images on the computer.

“I take a photo or I have a photo and I think, ‘Oh, I’m going to turn that into a quilt,’” explains Snell. “Even as I do the first level on the computer, I have already changed it from what I thought I was going to do. Then I start making it [the quilt] and it changes some more and it’s like, ‘Oh this is even better!’ I really never know what it is until it’s done.”

To create her unique textile art, Snell hand dyes fabrics into a smorgasbord of colors.

Courtsey of Sidnee Snell

“I get lots and lots of color that I may or may not use in a given piece or ever. But I need to have all of those things to choose from to be able to create something,” says Snell.

“I like to use something that is super, super dark so that if you are standing far away and you are looking at this quilt it looks like black,” she adds. “ … But if you are close that black may be a very, very dark green. And that black that may be a dark green is going to vibrate off red differently than a black that’s really a dark purple or a dark blue.”  

Snell mostly hand dyes cotton fabric. She uses fiber-reactive dyes in an alkaline environment that is processed from one hour up to overnight. She then rinses the fabric and washes it to set the dye.

Krysta Maksim / OPB

Snell explains that color outcomes can be affected by a variety of factors. “It is chemistry and there are so many things that can affect the result: what kind of water you have, the temperature of the water, the temperature in the house,” she says.

As with the way her quilts evolve, Snell’s creative spirit often directs her hand dyeing process. “Sometimes I will look and say I don’t have enough choices in purple. Then of course, I think I’m going to dye purple today so how come I keep picking up the yellow dye? I have one intention, but another thing seems to happen,” she says.

For those interested in hand dyeing fabric, Snell recommends taking a class first. “It is easier once you have seen it and touched it to go and try it out on your own,” she says.

And she reminds beginners not to worry about specific color results.

“I would say as far as coloring fabric is concerned, the most important thing is to just relax and have a good time with it.”

Sidnee Snell’s quilts are on display at the Guardino Gallery now through August 26. She will share her passion for textile art in an artist talk on August 16 at 2 p.m. at the Gallery. And you can learn more about Sidnee Snell when she is profiled on Oregon Art Beat next season.

Courtesy of Sidnee Snell

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